How Tools influence our Thinking

Art Tools

A thought about tools and painting: The tools we hold actually change our thinking. A tool determines what can and can’t be done, what solutions and options are open to us or not.

Our subconscious looks for solutions based on the options our tool provides. If the size or shape of your brush is not the one that matches what you envision should happen on your canvas, then you will probably get something that doesn’t exactly match your vision. Same thing for the paints you use or how the surface of the painting is like.

Like trying to do a block-in with paint on a very absorbent surface. The brush doesn’t want to move and it’s hard to draw. It can change the way you do your block-in. The drawing may come out more segmented, for example.

Or how about trying to create bright chroma with a muddy pile of paint?Trying to create large shapes with a small brush. Trying to create straight edges using a rounded brush. So my conclusion is that it’s nice to incorporate the habit of spending a minute to choose the right tool before I start working.

‘Glimpse of the Desert’; Oil painting from start to finish

It started with a square canvas which I built from wood. One of the first panels I ever made. It was the summer vacation in my Art school in Seattle and some of the students hired a model to pose for us for a long pose. 6 hours a day for 4 days.

I brought the canvas with me not knowing what the pose will be. When I finished the painting, working from life, it had an abstract background. I placed the figure in the center and I had no idea of what environment she might belong to.


I was really inspired by the pose but I felt that an abstract background did not fit it at all. A few months later, I realized what the right background for this figure is: It needed to be the inside of a tent, overlooking the desert at sunset, because the woman reminded me of some kind of Arabian royalty. The pose was very organic, and communicated confidence and relaxation at the same time. I imagined her being on a journey of some kind, and being royalty, the tent would naturally be luxurious and private.

So I decided to take the pose from the 4 walls of an art studio into a setting closer to a fancy bedouin tent. Having been in those a few times in Israel in the Negev desert, and getting a glimpse of that very simple, slow lifestyle, I wanted to paint something with that warm, slow atmosphere, something that adjusts itself to the pace of the desert where life moves slowly at the end of the day.

That new aspiration presented a challenge, because I had to invent the background and have it match the studio light – the light under which the model was standing.  At that point I started searching for references for different bedouin tent elements online. I tried to get an idea of how a fancy Bedouin tent might look like and what kind of items would be in it. I used photoshop to try to arrange them together to get an idea of an environment. After a while of doing that I realized the complexity of the scene requires a much more realistic model to paint from, if I wanted the background to match the degree of detail of the figure.
I went to a craft store, where I shopped around for a few hours, gathering items and getting ideas. When I left the store I had almost everything I needed and I sat down to build the tent.

I made a tiny little sculpture of the women to “calibrate” the light. Used a clamp-on book light to replace the studio light and used a candle for a lantern. Overall there were 3 light sources in the painting.

Tent Setup

I sewed the little pillows from various fabrics I bought wrapped around tiny pieces of sponge. I made the tent by sticking some wooden sticks into a corkscrew board. It was like building a tiny dollhouse.

I did a small value study to try to figure out the composition.

Once I had the tent, I was ready to paint. The first step was to do a perspective drawing. The strange thing is that here, I had to decide what the eye level is rather than it being decided for me, because I had to identify the original eye level according to the rendering of the figure.

Fast forward, I finished the background.

Lastly, I decided I had to change the direction of her head because to me, the meaning of the painting and the moment was in having this woman look outside, to the last remnant of light on the desert sand. So I drew a little diagram of the new angle:

Then, because I couldn’t have the original model posing for me again with the original light (though believe me, I have dreamt of it!!), I recreated the new angle based on the colors and values of the painting combined with this drawing (which was drawn with the aid of pictures). A note to myself was to always take notes of what colors I used in my paintings so that I can easily go back to them if needed.
Here is the study for the head. It involved a lot of interpolation since I did not have a model to paint from.
Head Study

Lastly I needed to seam the edges of the figure with the new background and to add hints of light to match the new environment. Add little objects, like the teapot and the carpet, a little thorn to decorate the table.

It was a difficult painting but I gave this lady the environment she belongs to, as I saw it and now the painting is complete. 🙂
‘Glimpse of the Desert’, 23”x24”, oil painting on board.


Pose Balance

Having a grasp of general principles of balance allows an artist to draw figures better; to create a sense of stability, dynamic stability or a sense of someone about to fall over. Those are created by how the body’s position relates to the frame of balance. Poses can be classified in their relation to balance as: passive stable, active stable (holding an arabesque), dynamic unstable (mid-motion), passive and dynamic (you’ve fainted  and your body is falling through Alice’s rabbit hole).

Considering different poses got me thinking about balance from a predominantly mechanical point of view rather than an artistic one and that’s the thinking that I’m detailing in this post.

The first principle to consider about active, stable poses  is that our two feet (or whatever other body part touching the ground) create a stable structure, much like a table’s legs, on which the rest of the body can move and shift.

The metaphor of the table still holds true on one foot, because each of our feet is like a small tripod with three points of contact.

This is important because a table can balance weight in different distributions, like so:
And a human being balances different weight distributions on top of our legs in the same way:
The center of gravity of the stick figure on the right is further shifted to the right, but the two legs are able to carry the same weight just the same.

Legs can carry unequally distributed weight up to a certain point. Put the ball too far on the edge of the table and the table will fall sideways. Place your center of gravity too far extended in relation to your legs and you’ll fall.
But within a certain range, a variety of poses are possible with the same leg position.

It also works while standing on one foot because each foot is like a small tripod. A small tripod can balance a small area of weight distribution over it (or a small surface on which objects can be safely placed without toppling the table over to use that metaphor).
balance_one leg

The bigger the surface area in contact with the ground the more stability is created and more room is created for “imbalance” on the table’s surface. A more elaborate base can be created by kneeling, standing on the hands, laying, sitting etc’. The more surface is in contact with the ground the more stable the base of the table is and the more room there is for shifting weight on the surface.
That means that there is no single “solution”, no single way in which the body must be positioned in order to be stable, given a certain placement of your two feet. You can balance a variety of positions with the same feet placement, similar to how you can place a heavy ball on the surface of a table in different distances from the center and it still remains steady.

To illustrate; imagine this dancer, who is leaning back, slowly straightening out her torso and then leaning it forward with her arms reaching forward. She will still stay stable, with her legs in the same position as she does this, until the point when her base will no longer be able to support the strain of the imbalanced weight. (Little note: This sculpture is decor art sold by a manufacturer called  bronze dancer figurine)

So far so good, but this completely neglects to mention that dynamic, stable poses are usually comfortably balanced. Stable poses on the verge of collapse are pretty unusual in art or in life drawing sessions, even though they are physically possible.

In a more classical figure drawing approach Ballance is carefully sought. The wise reasoning Andrew Loomis provides is:

“Balance is a physical attribute each of us must possess. If a figure is drawn without balance, it irritates us subconsciously. Our instinct is to set firmly on its base anything that is wobbling and likely to fall. Watch how quickly a mother’s hand grasps the teetering child. The observer recognizes quickly that a drawing is out of balance, and his inability to do anything about it sets up a negative response. Balance is an equalized distribution of weight in the figure as in anything else. If we lean over to one side, an arm or a leg is extended on the opposite side to compensate for the unequal distribution of weight over the foot or two feet that are the central point of division for the line of balance. If we stand on one foot, the weight must be distributed much as it is in a spinning top.”

Our body will naturally seek to minimize effort and that’s why balance is usually maximized in static poses. However, one foot is not exactly like a spinning top. It is a bit more like the 3 legs of a table; not by much, but by a little, perhaps barely enough to see difference, but a difference is there which is why we can create poses that are on the verge of being unstable but can still be held statically.

You may have heard it many times before that the way a contrapposto pose is balanced is by having different body parts lean in opposite directions to balance out the center of gravity and that the resulting center of gravity is placed above the weight bearing leg. So you may ask yourself; “if our feet can balance a variety of poses is it necessary for the different body parts to move opposite to one another or for the center of gravity to be placed above the weight bearing leg/ center of stability?” In my opinion the answer is no, they don’t 100% have to, but usually they will and it will happen naturally. For example, you think of extending your arms and torso forward and immediately your pelvis and legs will move in the opposite direction over your center of stability to balance the weight.
This is the case in these beautiful illustrations by George Bridgman:
This allows you to extend further sideways than if your legs and pelvis remained straight, and it reduces the load on your muscles. This compensation happens naturally. That leads the discussion to the last and important piece of the puzzle; the muscles.

Our muscles kick into action whenever we wish to hold a body part against gravity. lean forward and your back muscles have to work to keep you from falling forward. Lean backwards and your abdomen muscles have to work to keep you from falling backwards.

They operate in a more complex way than that, but in basic terms, your muscles kick in when you wish to hold a pose against gravity. They are there to serve as a glue that keeps your body parts from falling over. The more unstable the pose, the harder your muscles have to work to maintain it.

Dynamic stable poses can require a lot of muscle activity. Imagine a dancer’s arabesque, for example; Lots of muscle groups work to keep different body parts mid-air against gravity.  So long as the muscle are able to keep working, the pose remains stable.

So to conclude, to think of figure drawing in terms of balance is to first get a grasp of the base of stability of a pose, and try to imagine what sort of range of imbalance it can hold over it (what size of “table surface” can such a base hold). Then, figure out how far out the “ball is placed on the surface of the table” in that pose. Is it an extreme pose on the verge of imbalance? Maybe it is a classically balanced dynamic pose (which it almost always will be).
Some poses are like moving a weight to the edge of the table, instead of comfortably placing it in the center of the table. It is fun to think of poses primarily in terms of their balance and thinking about it in those terms might help get the mood of a pose across.

The many forms of visual CONTRAST

Midsummer Eve, Edward Robert Hughes, 1908

Visual contrast is a key concept in the making of an artwork. A concept I learned from online lectures by artist Bill Perkins at NMA.

My initial concept of visual contrast was very limited. I thought that contrast consists of something visually standing out due to being darker or lighter than what’s next to it. I was aware that you could create color contrast. But his lecture really opened my eyes to the endless forms of visual contrast that take part in an artwork and shape the way we experience it.  Continue reading

Value in composition

Values is a term in art that describes how light or dark something is. It refers to the grayscale value of a color.

How light or dark something is is one of the primary ways our visual system analyzes the visual world around us. It’s how we recognize something as a shape or an outline and it clues us to understand it as an entity.

In visual art it is a primary tool to emphasize and de-emphasize elements in a work of art. More specifically than value, it is the contrast that is used to make something stand out or disappear. When you start paying attention to how it is used in art, some of those lovely paintings and the way they were composed starts seeming very deliberate and not so random. It is not just that an artist gets an inspiration and an idea of what they want to paint, it is also that they then spend time composing the values of the picture to make the theme or subject of their painting stand out. So much so that in some cases it can almost seem shamelessly composed, yet seem entirely coincidental, unintended and realistic. Continue reading

Passion for Anatomy


Anatomy has been a delightful pursuit for the last year since my graduation from Georgetown Atelier.

I am so enamoured with it; the human body, the biological machine, an absolute beauty; sophisticated and elegant, powerful and capable of executing our will as well as express our emotions. As social beings our bodies and minds have tremendous power to communicate and perceive our mood and character.

Every artist who studies anatomy does it for a slightly different reason, I believe. Continue reading

Study of Local values

I came across this excellent local-value study by teaching artist Melissa Weinman (website).

She drew 3 balls which she colored white, gray and black with acrylic paint, placing them under the exact same lighting conditions. The image bellow was the result.

The most important and interesting deductive use I found for this is for skin values in people and how different colored-skin individuals would appear under the same light. Continue reading

Visual Principles vs. sheer Observation in Art making

Figure Construction As an art student you will often hear the idea that the artist must learn to ignore what “they think they see” about their subject matter in order to actually see it as it is. That in our mind, there is an abstract visual symbol of different things (such as the shape of the head) and that we need to learn to ignore it in order to observe what is actually there.

There is some truth to that, and some falsehood as well.

As humans, there is only so much information we can hold in our mind at any given point. Principles and generalization help us to quickly understand a situation rather than analyze it as if we are encountering everything about it for the very first time. Continue reading

Thoughts about the Painting process

Painting the figure is complex. There are a lot of things that need to be taken under account, such as proportion, anatomy, value, color – not to mention the gesture and expression and how each part of the painting relates to the whole.

The more complexity the artist can retain at any given time, the better off the painting will be, because the more factors would be calculated into each brush stroke. However, in reality, doing all of it at once is too daunting a task. It gets easier with experience, since more and more knowledge becomes automatized, but still, a lot of complexity remains anyway.

So, the artist must come up with a method of reducing that complexity into manageable steps. Traditionally, this is usually achieved by doing a block-in (a simplified drawing of the major lines and value shapes), then painting a light, transparent, monochromatic version of the subject, to figure out the value scale of everything and then finally adding the color.

This way, every aspect of the complexity is dealt with one at a time. In what’s called Ala-Prima painting, everything has to be done at the same time more or less. The accuracy of the drawing, the values, colors and the integration of every part of the painting around its theme or focal point.
However, even in doing this there are ways to reduce the complexity and dealing with it one thing at a time. Different people would prioritize what to “solve” first differently. This realization struck me clearly as I saw a picture of the following painting by Morgan Weistling in mid-stage of making it:

Look at the girl’s left hand, the one not fully painted yet. This, for me, was the giveaway. The interesting thing here is what the artist prioritized – what complexity he chose to target first. In this case, it wasn’t the structure; it was the color and value relationship. As you can see, the hand is still lacking its structure – there are no knuckles, the fingers are not yet separated and the exact outline formed by each finger is not yet accurately described. From this general paint blob, he will later carve out, or add, the structure.
Another thing that was being solved there was the proportion and the general shape. The artist was able to do that because, after years of drawing experience, those things come easily and are well automatized.

With most artists, I believe, the drawing aspect is the one issue that needs to be solved first, because it holds the most complexity, and everything else is then built on top and in relation to that initial stage. (That is the case with me with most paintings, with some exceptions).

I think that there can be two approaches here: One is to first put down the easiest thing to solve, what one already has automatized, and then build the complexity and other aspects on top of that. Or the other approach is to first start with the most complex part, get it out the way and then build the other things on top.
It is much easier, in my opinion, to use the second method, because without it, an artist can get a sense of being overwhelmed with the complexity, which isn’t made a lot better simply because something like the value or colors have been figured out. However, I think it makes for a better painting or drawing when the value is prioritized first, and the structure emerges from it rather than the other way around.

Velasquez is an excellent example of this. He has the structure well automatized that he is able to put it last, not first, and since his primary focus is value and color, he can imply the structure in a subtle yet accurate way, just enough to get the idea across, without describing everything in detail. It gives the viewer a sense of epistemological power; a sense of being able to mentally hold complexity in a simplified form; a sense of control over complexity.

Value, in a work of art, is the primary tool for unification and differentiation. It can be used to sharpen differences between objects of to unify them and send them to the background. Both are important in a work of art, because art described things in a selective way – it enhances the central aspects of a painting and de-emphasizes the ones that serve merely as context or setting for the main focus.

Incidentally, while I admire the painting style of the first artist I shared here by Morgan Weistling, I think he utilizes the same style all over the painting non-selectively. A lot of artists do that, with different styles (it can also be done with photo realism). Compare that to this painting by Ilya Repin, a Russian painter from the 1850’s – notice how the ships in the background are mushed together in value and lack detail to de-emphasize them and send them to the background, while the men are described much more and appear to emerge. I think this selectivity of rendering makes for a superior art work.
Therefore, I think it is wise to start a painting with the values figured out, and then have the structure emerge out of that, slowly and in a controlled way, creating the emphasis only where the artist needs it to be.
The problem here is that it is more difficult to describe (or what I call “solve” or “figure out”) the structure rather than the value, and so if all your canvas has is the general values, the entire complexity of the drawing needs to be solved as you go. Ouch!
I think a solution to that is the wipe-out process, which retains some information of the drawing while still unifying the values across the entire painting.

Anyhow, I don’t feel like I’ve reached a definite conclusion, but rather made some interesting observations about how an artist approaches a painting and deals with its complexity.

I think in most cases, the artist will first solve what is most difficult and what takes up most of their mental space. This changes over time once some aspects become more automatized compared to others (these are usually what the artist is most fascinated with).

I’ll have to continue this line of thinking some other time!

Merry Christmas!